2016–17 was one of the slowest growth years for charter schools in recent memory. Nobody knows for sure why this happened, but one hypothesis is saturation: With charters enjoying market shares of over 20 percent in some three dozen cities, and almost 50 percent in Washington, D.C., perhaps school supply is starting to meet parental demand, making new charters less necessary and harder to launch. If so, perhaps it’s time to look for new frontiers.
One option is to start more charter schools in affluent communities, which we surely support. But we couldn’t help but wonder: Are we overlooking neighborhoods in America that are already home to plenty of poor kids, and that contain the population density necessary to make school choice work? Especially communities in the inner-ring suburbs of flourishing cities, which are increasingly becoming magnets for poor and working-class families priced out of gentrifying areas?
That’s the question addressed by Fordham’s new study by Miami of Ohio assistant professor Andrew Saultz, Charter School Deserts: High-Poverty Neighborhoods with Limited Educational Options. Saultz and his team found that thirty-nine of forty-two charter states have at least one desert each—and the average number of deserts per state is a worrying 10.8.
Consider how this plays out in the Washington, D.C., metro area. The District of Columbia is home to a thriving, high-quality charter sector that has benefited from supportive public policies and ample private philanthropy. That’s all well and good—but the city’s affluence has put residency out of reach for many poor and working-class families. The District is home to roughly 37,000 poor children and 120 charter schools. Yet neighboring Montgomery County, Maryland, has many more low-income students—some 55,202 of them—and exactly zero charter schools. And in chronically low-performing Prince George’s County, Maryland, there are 81,055 low-income students, but just eleven charter schools.
On May 23, we convened a panel to summarize of Fordham’s new study, discuss the charter school deserts located in the shadow of the Washington Monument, and examine what might be done by philanthropists, policymakers, and others to irrigate them.